History of the World, Part 1

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, during a live national TV broadcast. The sidewalks were still wet. The landscaping wasn't complete (Walt had landscaping chief Morgan “Bill” Evans put Latin signs on all the weeds to make it look intentional). The water fountains were not functioning (following a plumbers' strike, and there was no time; Walt had to make a choice between having the water fountains or the toilets work on opening day).

And yet, it was a rousing success.

Marvin Davis recalls, “The minute Disneyland opened, Walt said, 'We're gonna kick ourselves for not buying everything within a radius of 10 miles around here.'” History would prove Walt right. Seedy hotels and restaurants cropped up all around Disneyland. His Magic Kingdom would be surrounded by the low-rent environment that he had built it to counteract. Walt didn't usually make the same mistake twice.

By 1960, Roy Disney had found a way to buy out ABC, Western Printing & Lithographing, and all of the concessionaires that Walt had allowed in so that the park would not be empty when it opened. By taking on a great deal more debt, Roy had brought Disneyland under the complete ownership of Walt Disney Productions. By 1965, Disneyland had more than doubled its number of attractions, from 22 to 47, and almost tripled its cost, from $17 million to $48 million.

Walt hated to repeat himself. He always wanted to do something new, which is the genesis of the much-quoted line, “There will never be another Disneyland.” And he meant to stick to that. He intended to tweak and improve Disneyland (which he referred to as “plussing”) to make it even more impressive and enjoyable. But as time wore on, he realized that he would not be able to do some things that he wished that he could do because there was no room at Disneyland. He couldn't afford to buy the land around Disneyland any more, as the prices of land had skyrocketed. He couldn't move the park. Something had to change.

“Control the environment”

There were so many things that Walt wanted to change. He didn't want the neon jungle to creep up right across the street from his park. He wanted people to have places to stay close to the park that weren't seedy.

Walt would later say, in discussing the Florida project:

“The one thing I learned from Disneyland was to control the environment. Without that we get blamed for things that someone else does. When they come here they're coming because of an integrity that we've established over the years, and they drive for hundreds of miles and the little hotels on the fringe would jump their rates three times. I've seen it happen and I just can't take it because, I mean, it reflects on us. I just feel a responsibility to the public when I go into this thing that we must control that, and when they come into this so-called world, that we will take the blame for what goes on.”

Walt wanted to have more room to build new attractions and explore new ideas. And he had lots of ideas.

At the 10th anniversary celebration for Club 55, the group of cast members (from front-line through executive) who had worked at Disneyland on opening day, Walt said:

“I mean, when we opened, if we could have bought more land, we would have. Then we'd have had control and it wouldn't look too much like a second-rate Las Vegas around here. We'd have had a little better chance to control it. But we ran out of money, and then by the time we did have a little money, everybody got wise to what was going on and we couldn't buy anything around the place at all!”

He had new stories to tell and nowhere to tell them. His thoughts turned to how he could do it again, bigger and better. He also was concerned that he was not able to reach his entire intended audience with Disneyland, once telling a colleague, “Do you realize that we play to only one-fourth of the United States at Disneyland? There's a whole other world on the other side of the Mississippi.”

The World's Fair

But before embarking on a major undertaking on the East Coast, Walt wanted to make sure that Disneyland-style entertainment would work on the Atlantic side of the country. He also wanted to figure out how to build and pay for new attractions for Disneyland, since money was tight. He decided to offer WED's services to various corporations and organizations to design pavilions for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. This would allow him to resolve both of those issues at the same time.

After negotiating with General Motors, GM decided to build its own pavilion, but suggested that Disney talk to Ford. Ford was more than happy to have Disney build its pavilion. The Ford Magic Skyway would transport visitors through the history of the world, focusing on the technological developments of mankind, all in the comfort of new Ford vehicles.

General Electric, trying to recover from a price-fixing scandal, was also happy to be associated with Disney's wholesome image. Progressland would introduce another Disney innovation: the moving theater. Instead of having the guests view a stage with changing sets and performers, the stage would remain the same, but the audience would move from scene to scene via a rotating theater. This allowed multiple simultaneous performances with a single entrance and exit.

In 1963, Robert Moses, who was president of the New York World's Fair, brought his executive vice president, William E. “Joe” Potter, to California to meet with Walt and to discuss the pavilions. This meeting would have a great impact on future developments. After viewing a working model of an Audio-Animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln as part of a presentation on Walt's Hall of Presidents attraction that he was planning, Moses decided that he had to have the figure at the fair in some way or another. With a great deal of effort, Moses convinced the State of Illinois to sponsor a pavilion that would feature “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” But, perhaps more importantly, Walt met General Joe Potter.

Before becoming executive vice president of the World's Fair, Potter had been a general in the Army Corps of Engineers and, at one time, governor of the Panama Canal Zone. Before the year was out, he was helping Walt select a location for his Florida project. Potter became a lead player in the design of Walt Disney World, especially when it came to the major earth-moving and water-channeling projects.

Less than a year before the fair was to open, Walt took on one last project. He found out that Admiral Joe Fowler, a WED executive, had turned down a request from Pepsi-Cola for assistance in creating a pavilion for UNICEF (originally the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund—shortened in 1953 to the United Nations Children's Fund—perhaps best known as the beneficiary of “Trick or Treat for UNICEF”) thinking that the three exhibits already underway would not allow any more time to be devoted to another project by WED. Furious that the decision was made without consulting him, Walt took on the project. In only nine months, talented WED Imagineers created one of the most enduring attractions in Disneydom, “it's a small world,” featuring the unforgettable (and, according to some, inescapable) title song, written by the Sherman Brothers.

The four WED-created attractions all turned out to be among the most popular of the Fair. At the Fair's conclusion, the pavillion sponsors were offered a waiver of their $1 million dollar fee for the use of Walt Disney's name if they consented to the attractllons moving to Disneyland. All accepted, and “it's a small world,” “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” General Electric's Progressland (renamed “The Carousel of Progress”), and the Primeval World diorama from Ford's Magic Skyway were all moved to Disneyland. Walt now knew that not only would the East Coast love Disneyland-style entertainment, but he had confirmed that his Imagineers could match up with any other designers in the world. He was ready for his next move.

Next time: Site selection and acquisition